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DVD Review: ‘Charlie Chan Collection’ (2013) – Four More Monograms Make the Grade!

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It’s hard to believe, but it’s been over three years since the last Charlie Chan box set, the TCM Spotlight: Charlie Chan Collection, hit DVD. The ritual first began in 2004 when MGM issued a box set (the Charlie Chan Chanthology) of exploits from history’s most famous fictional Asian sleuth made during the franchise’s Monogram years. Fox then followed suit between 2006 and 2008 with five chronological box sets that presented us with the series’ earlier (and perhaps better) entries (which were called the Charlie Chan Collection, Volumes 1 through 5) before the 2010 TCM Spotlight set came to pass.

charlie-chan-collection-2013-dvd-review-blogcriticsAs of August 5, 2013, there were seven Charlie Chan films that were MIA on (legitimate) home video. Frankly, I – as well as many other fans – began to wonder if we would ever see these gems in a form other than fuzzy TV dupes. Thankfully, the folks at Warner proved me wrong with their August 6, 2013 four-disc market release of the Charlie Chan Collection (yes, they almost all bear the exact same name – which might cause some confusion), which presents us with four of the previously-unreleased Monogram-era titles: the 1946 Sidney Toler vehicle Shadows Over Chinatown, and the 1948 Roland Winters entries Docks of New Orleans, Shanghai Chest, and The Golden Eye.

Disc 1 brings us Shadows Over Chinatown, the thirty-eighth of forty-seven (!) Charlie Chan movies produced by Fox and Monogram over an eighteen-year period, which finds Sidney Toler in one of his final turns as the honorable detective from Honolulu. This time, he’s in San Francisco investigating the death of a young lass whose arms, legs, and head have been removed. Ick. John Gallaudet and Bruce Kellogg both put in their first of two appearances in the franchise, Paul Bryar and Dorothy Granger also co-star. Mary Gordon – who appeared in several Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films as Sherlock Holmes’ landlady – is also in the cast, and there’s something utterly delightful about seeing Sidney Toler escort her through a café.

If Toler appears to look a bit unwell, it’s because the brave actor was suffering from intestinal cancer at the time of filming. The pain was so great at times, in fact, that he is usually sitting. And since the Monogram series’ usual comic relief, Mantan Moreland (as Chan’s cowardly chauffer, Birmingham Brown), couldn’t go investigating on Mr. Chan’s behalf all by his lonesome, the studio reunited Toler with his former Fox co-star Victor Sen Yung – who had been off serving his country in WWII during the Fox-to-Monogram move (and who had taken over for Keye Luke as the proverbial Chan offspring when the series original star, Warner Oland, passed) – to come in and alleviate his filmic patriarch’s pain.

It is here that we first bear witness to the comedic pairing of Victor Sen Yung and Mantan Moreland. A highlight finds this ambiguously gay duo holding hands as they creep down the street in broad daylight in a (poor) attempt to shadow the film’s heroine (Tanis Chandler) – only to put sunglasses when they sense detection! Moreland even gets to put on a silly fake moustache and goatee, which he gleefully parades in front of the camera for all to enjoy.

The newly-created comedy duo of Sen Yung & Moreland went on to assist Toler in his final film, Dangerous Money (which is included in the TCM Spotlight set), before the good Mr. Toler passed away in 1947 (as his onscreen successor solemnly states in this set’s second entry: “Death one appointment we must all keep, and for which no time set”). Following Toler’s death, actor Roland Winters took on the role as Charlie Chan – beginning with The Chinese Ring (’47, also available in the TCM Spotlight set). Moreland and Sen Yung continued to stay aboard for most of the series’ final six films – though the writers (for one reason or another) changed Sen Yung’s character’s name from Jimmy to Tommy.

Disc 2 takes us to the Docks of New Orleans, wherein an already-established Roland Winters takes charge once more. The story here – an uncredited rehashing of a Mr. Wong flick, which is pretty amusing considering Mr. Wong was created by Monogram as a low-rent competitor to Charlie Chan – finds Charlie and Co. in New Orleans. This time, murders are committed via radio tubes filled with poisonous gas (instead of plain ol’ glass orbs like in Mr. Wong, Detective).

Charlie practically has the case solved from the get-go here, and a delightful moment where Tommy and Birmingham inadvertently break the case (and a radio tube) whilst jamming away in the next room on their fiddle and piano, respectively (to wit Charlie memorably asks “Excuse interruption of music festival please, but would mind repeating excruciating sound made with assistance of cat intestine?”). Fittingly enough for a Poverty Row production, the Docks of the title really don’t enter into the fray, save for a few scenes with one of my favorite B-Movie heavies, Douglas Frowley, who is cast as a – you guessed it – heavy. Virginia Dale is the required token female, John Gallaudet returns (albeit in a different role), and the rest of the cast it literally littered with familiar old faces such as Harry Hayden, Howard Negley, Stanley Andrews, Emmett Vogan, and Boyd Irwin.

Disc 3 holds the key to the Shanghai Chest – wherein several people on a closed case are being systematically dispatched by a presumably-ghostly assailant in alphabetical order. Now, it is here that I would like to say a few words about Mr. Winters’ adoption of the character. As I said in my review of the TCM Spotlight collection, it is indeed different – and that has nothing to do with the actor’s noticeable lack of yellowface eye makeup (which I suppose might be a good thing to some of today’s audiences), which gives him more of an eccentric appearance than anything.

Why, even Winters’ slightly questionable accent – which sounds vaguely French to me, leading me to suspect he would have made an excellent Hercule Poirot (coincidentally, Shanghai Chest‘s working title was Murder By Alphabet – a no doubt deliberate play on Agatha Christie’s Poirot novel, The A.B.C. Murders, which was published only twelve short years prior) – and the fact that he was only eleven years older than his onscreen Number Two Son don’t even enter into it.

No, what I find really fascinating about Roland Winters’ take on Chan is that he is, for lack of a better word, “ballsier.” One segment of the film finds Charlie, Tommy, and Birmingham cornered by a gun-toting Milton Parsons (cast, as he usually was, in the part of a creepy mortician). Confronted with the premise of an early retirement from existence by a lowly hood, Winters stands before his would-be murderer and all but dares him to pull the trigger. It’s quite out-of-character – and refreshingly individualistic. Between this and his thorough lack of patience with other people – in particular the stupidity of his own son (as he says in Docks of New Orleans: “Please be sorry out of my sight, because, while in it, vision blurs and find self-control leaving me.”) – Winters really does make a memorable Chan.

On the trivia side of things here, the great Willie “Sleep n’ Eat” Best has a cameo in a scene set in a jail wherein Moreland not only refers to him by his real name, but who has been incarcerated for bank robbery. Way to fight stereotypes, right? Also of interest is the debut Monogram bit part player/writer Tim Ryan as Lt. Mike Ruark – a recurring character for three of the final four movies in the franchise (the ever-illustrious acknowledgment of Additional Dialogue is also attributed to Ryan in the film’s opening credits). Ryan had been seen in several previous Chan films from both studios – and is perhaps most notable today as the first real life hubby of the Clampett Clan’s Granny. Tristram Coffin and frequent Three Stooges foil Philip Van Zandt co-star in this, one of three Chan films aptly helmed by the prolific B-Movie director, William Beaudine.

Beaudine returns to direct this Charlie Chan Collection‘s final entry, The Golden Eye (we’re on Disc 4 now, just in case my incessant babbling forced you to lose count, people), which bares no resemblance to a James Bond flick. At all. In fact, just like the aforementioned Three Stooges occasionally rode west for a laugh, Charlie Chan here finds himself traveling to a decidedly western town in Arizona in order to solve a mystery. Ralph Dunn is one of the baddies here, Wanda McKay is the ineffectually-written heroine (with an equally inefficient Bruce Kellogg returning from Shadows Over Chinatown), and Forrest Taylor has a small part as the former’s doomed father – who own The Golden Eye mine (the source of all the mayhem). Tom Tyler and Richard Loo (among others) reportedly filmed scenes that were deleted before the film was released.

The bizarre ending of the film has Mantan Moreland breaking the fourth wall, approaching the camera, and all-but imitating Porky Pig at the conclusion of a Looney Tunes cartoon. Very peculiar, indeed. Needless to say, The Golden Eye is a weak entry. Regretfully, the real highpoint here is where Tim Ryan – returning as Lt. Ruark – poses undercover as a drunken tourist as the dude ranch most of the (ahem) “action” takes place at. While it’s mind-boggling to envision the very large district he must to cover, one can easily note by the fashions and free-pouring booze that something quite epic was happening all around the world: the ’40s were giving way to the ’50s.

In terms of video and audio quality, all four films here in 2013’s Charlie Chan Collection are quite spectacular. Each one appears to have gone through some serious restoration – and will no doubt surprise most of you. Back in 2009, Warner Home Video’s Senior VP George Feltenstein said the then-unreleased 11 Monogram Chan films needed heavy restoration (as source materials were of the highly-unstable and extremely-flammable nitrate kind), but that they would be released on DVD in the future

Well, it certainly seems that George has kept his word here, folks – and what’s even more surprising is the fact that, while many of the other catalog titles released by Warner these days, this one is not a Manufactured-on-Demand DVD-R outing. This one’s the real deal, kids (though those very generic DVD menus look like they were made circa 1997). The only audio options here are the original English mono tracks, and optional English (SDH), French, and Spanish subtitles are included on all four films.

With a $39.92 MSRP price tag, I can’t say the 2013 Charlie Chan Collection is a bad buy. It isn’t – even for four Monogram-era entries (plus, you can get it on Amazon for even less than that), especially when you stop to consider this set not only reunites Sidney Toler with Victor Sen Yung, but then pairs Sen Yun with Mantan Moreland. That said, I can’t wait for the final Chan set on DVD: wherein we will finally get a chance to see The Feathered Serpent – the one and only time both Keye Luke and Victor Sen Yung appeared onscreen together as Charlie Chan’s honorable sons.

Heck, you should buy this set just so Warner will release that one if nothing else!

But of course, I recommended this one either way.

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.